Explained: Military helicopters over the Stokes

Photo of two helicopters in flight.
RAF Puma helicopters in flight.

The frequency at which military helicopter are seen flying low over Stoke Gifford and the surrounding areas seems to have increased over the last year or so, although this may be because we have had more opportunities to spot them as a consequence of the Covid-19 ‘Stay home’ guidance. But where are the helicopters going and what are they up to?

There has been plenty of speculation on local Facebook groups, but reliable information is scarce, so we thought it was time for the Journal to investigate.

The distinctive pulsating sound of tandem-rotor Chinook helicopters has been heard regularly over the Stokes for several years, usually travelling east-west once a week at normal operational height along the M4 corridor. But the increased activity seen in recent months involves a different type of helicopter, the Puma, often operating at a very low level.

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Online chatter has suggested that these helicopters are landing at MoD Abbey Wood or the Nightingale Hospital at UWE, but investigation by the Journal has confirmed that they are in fact landing on the sports field at the Mile Straight Sports & Social Club on New Road, Stoke Gifford, roughly mid-way between the Travis Perkins building supplies depot and the Aviva Centre [map].

Information shared by the RAF (see below) confirms that the sports field is a registered helicopter landing site (HLS) and has been for many years.

Photo of a helicopter on a sports field.
An RAF Puma helicopter on the sports field at the Mile Straight Sports & Social Club.

A source connected with the sports club has confirmed that military helicopter landings at the site have become more frequent since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, initially in connection with the construction of a Nightingale Hospital on the nearby UWE Frenchay Campus. Eyewitnesses say that in recent times there have been roughly two landings a month, some of them taking place at night.

A video shared with the Journal shows a helicopter taking off from the site, from a point very close to homes in the adjacent Cobb Court, in the dark at around 7pm on 9th March. Other videos and photos show a daytime landing of two helicopters on 24th March 2021.


The 24th March event matches a post from that day on the Facebook page of RAF Benson:

“Two Puma helicopters are expected to be operating in the Bristol and Cardiff areas this afternoon and into this evening. These flights are part of the essential training for our crews before they deploy on Operation TORAL in Afghanistan.”

An RAF spokesperson confirmed:

“RAF Puma helicopters have recently been operating at the landing site [at the Mile Straight club]. These essential operational training events being designed to ensure that our crews continue to be ready for global operations.”

The spokesperson added:

“It is possible that some landings were associated with the Nightingale Hospital during the early stages of Covid, however, those by RAF Benson aircraft in recent months have not been related to this.”

“As this location is an HLS next to an MoD facility it is likely that use of the site by our assets will continue; however, we are unable to say how often this particular HLS is likely to be used as it depends on numerous factors.”

• Ministry of Defence Low Flying Complaints and Enquiries telephone number: 01780 417558

Related link: Low flying military aircraft (GOV.UK)

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Background information provided by the RAF

The Mile Straight Sports & Social Club sports field is an official Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) and has been for many years.

The RAF, and in this case, Puma helicopter crews, use a variety of HLSs around the whole of the UK for training and vary their routes and training locations to maximise training benefit; for example, recently our Pumas have been training in the Bristol, South Wales, Birmingham and the Manchester areas.

This site and the multitude of others used, enable RAF crews to train in urban environments in preparation for operations in places such as Afghanistan where the Puma Force provides support to the ongoing NATO RESOLUTE SUPPORT mission.

The RAF Helicopter force is also on high readiness to deploy around the world, in support of operations such as the hurricane relief effort in the Caribbean in 2017 (Op RUMAN) and the ongoing effort to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK (Op RESCRIPT).

Utilising HLSs, such as this one in Stoke Gifford, forms an invaluable part of this training for the Puma Force.

Where possible, we notify local communities of training activity that may be taking place in areas that are not used to seeing such activity, as per our recent social media posts. However, we will not offer full details for security purposes.

This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of the Stoke Gifford Journal magazine (on pages 6 & 7). The magazine is delivered FREE, nine times a year, to over 5,000 homes in Stoke Gifford, Little Stoke and Harry Stoke. Phone 01454 300 400 to enquire about advertising or leaflet insertion.

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